Programming Note: These reviews are written from the perspective of someone who has not read books. They contain liberal speculation as to future developments, but these are based only on what has aired on the show so far (not even including the Next Week On trailers), and thus are intended to be safe for the spoiler-averse. That means NO MENTIONS OF THE BOOKS WHATSOEVER IN THE COMMENTS. DOESN’T MATTER IF IT IS THINGS THAT HAVE ALREADY OCCURRED OR CAN NO LONGER OCCUR AT THIS POINT IN THE SHOW, OR PREDICTIONS I MAKE THAT ARE DEMONSTRABLY WRONG. IF YOUR COMMENT INCLUDES THE WORDS “IN THE BOOKS”, DON’T POST IT.
Prior recaps can be found in here.
Tonight’s Game Of Thrones contains one of the most difficult to stomach deaths in the history of a series known for particularly brutal demises. A character that we did not know all that well, but everyone had to like, an innocent who did nothing to deserve their horrific fate.
I’m actually speaking of the princess Shireen of the House Baratheon, of course, who is horribly and publicly burned at the stake by her own parents, for reasons that no one, least of all her, will understand. Davos certainly won’t, and while I don’t see him throwing in with the despicable Boltons (sidebar: I’m half convinced Ramsay is as magical as Melisandre at this point, with his ability to teleport in and out unseen while setting 2 dozen perfectly timed fires in freezing, wet and windy conditions), I could see him despairing over it to the point that he would start wearing black. Furthermore, it seems that it may have been too much for Stannis’s wife, of all people, whose faith seems to have reached a breaking point that not even she knew it had. What remains to be seen is whether watching their “king” act so monstrously will have a significant effect on his bannermen. By which I mean both his soldiers on the show and those in our world that identify(ied) as Team Stannis. I’ve never been on board that train, but I admit that even I doubted he would stoop so low.
To that end, I wonder if this will drive some viewers away from sheer brutality fatigue. On the one hand, I’d kind of think that by its fifth year the show would’ve shed most anyone who wasn’t pretty hard-hearted about such things, but on the other this has to be particularly traumatic for any parents in the audience. I suppose it has a silver lining in that the Red Woman should have a full store of mana for raining terror down on the Boltons, but even though I half-jokingly said otherwise last week, I’m no longer sure that giving Ramsay the same treatment would make up for having to hear the girl’s screams as she burned.
What makes this arguably bleaker than even the Red Wedding is that despite our not being as attached to Shireen, this is not a “twist” in a plotting sense, and thus lacks any charge of roller-coaster excitement that those tragedies carried. Where those deaths dropped your jaw, here your stomach just sinks. Because this is not set to have the same immediate, seismic narrative consequences that offing the nominal hero(s) carries; there is no violation of storytelling rules at work here, only of human decency at its basest level. After all, even Cersei loves her children, as even her enemies acknowledge. Hell, the Boltons suddenly seem a reasonable alternative in light of this;they at least stick mostly to “throwing stones at cripples”, rather than killing those devoted to them (not that Ramsay is above offing a servant or two for his amusement).
The counterargument, as espoused by Melisandre and the late Eagle Eye Cherry, is that these terrible things are necessary ingredients for greatness. But Tyrion, bless his drunken heart, further demonstrates what an asset he is to the Mereen stories by giving voice to the contrarian view. He’s taken Varys’s words from the premiere to heart, and espouses the deceptively optimistic view that just because we’ve become accustomed to horrors does not mean we can’t do better. That just because Oz is great and terrible, it doesn’t mean he’s great because of the terribleness. He also has the same eye-rolling reaction I do to Daario’s peacocking, so the scene in the arena was working double time to remind me why I loved the guy in the first place.
That arena scene just keeps ramping up the action, giving us the most intensive dragon work of the entire series, and the biggest spectacle since…well, last week. And kudos to HBO for not blowing their spectacle load for these sequences in their season promos, but this is nowhere near as exciting as Hardhome, for a few reasons. A minor one is that Emilia Clarke is misdirected in the flying sequence at the end. It seems like she should be either exuberant or terrified climbing on to the dragon, but apparently they were going for serene (maybe?) and ended up on….just kind of there. More significantly, the Sons of the Harpy are so clearly placeholder antagonists, compared to the Walkers’ Final Boss status, so I didn’t buy for a second that either Dany or Tyrion would die at their hands. Plus I’d spent the whole sequence thinking about how they wouldn’t have bothered to set up Jorah getting greyscale only to have him fall in battle before anyone finds out. Since I’ve never given a shit for Daario, the worst possible casualty left was Missandei. And as pleasant a presence as Nathalie Emmanuel is, I’d just listened to a young girl scream as she was roasted alive by her parents. I had just about no shit left to lose at that point.
And I do think the triumphant ending was intentionally placed there to counteract that giant downer, but for me and quite a few others it was nearly completely overpowered by it. And so I think it might’ve been better if the finales of the last two episodes were swapped. Hardhome is even less of a victory than the dragon flight, but that means the tonal shift might not clash quite as hard, and besides that it would’ve kept the focus in the North and served as a timely reminder that Melisandre’s horrors are in service of more than Stannis’s personal vindication. Or maybe it would just cater to my personal preference for the Wall storyline getting more prominence than the Essos one.
Or maybe it would’ve soured one of my favorite sequences in the show’s history by proximity to such a nauseating development. Because I can’t even muster any real attention for the Dorne, Braavos or Castle Black scenes from this week. So I’ll throw out a few predictions for the finale before check out:
Arya steals a face to take out Meryn and is tossed out of the House Of Black And White. Nothing much happens in Mereen. The FrankenMountain tears through the Faith Militant to free the captives, which leaves Cersei free but completely on the outs from the regime. Ellaria sends a Sand Snake back in the Prince’s entourage to kill Cersei. Olly does something terrible to sabotage the Wildling alliance, and I’m going to say it’s Sam that takes the loss.
So is it Sunday yet?